DYNAMICS OF FORGIVENESS
Adam Blatner, M.D.
October 17, 2005
considers some of the psychological dynamics–intrapsychic and
inter-personal–that may help us understand the processes involved in
there’s one word for both types, it’s important to differentiate
between two types of forgiveness:
There is a possibility of reconciliation, because there’s a possibility
that the other person might want to, or probably would be willing to
try to work it out, and the relationship is worth it. How then to go
about it will be the main focus of this paper, because there are some
important ways to achieve this end! If more people knew about this
method, the world would be a lot nicer place. This is the forgiveness
of reconciliation or atonement.
Another type of forgiveness probably cannot be a mutual process, for a
number of reasons. Perhaps the other person is far away, or dead, or
would not be able to be identified in the mass–e.g., a soldier in
another country generations ago who killed your grandfather or father.
Or the other person has no meaningful relationship with you and there
seems to be little reason that such a relationship might ever be
established. Maybe the two of you just don’t like each other and
there’s no particular reason you need to make up–you don’t run in the
same circles. Sometimes the nature of the hurt was too great,
traumatic, the pain too intense, the hate generated too poisonous. Nor
are there any mutual friends or relatives who would benefit from your
attempting a reconciliation. There may be other reasons, too.
On the other
hand, occasionally past enemies do reconcile–there are some reports of
pilots or soldiers on different sides in a past war finding each other
and re-establishing a kind of international atonement. The hurt in such
cases, apparently, wasn’t taken too personally.
Not that there
isn’t a type of forgiveness process to be cultivated–but it’s more of a
“releasing” than a reconciliation. No one makes up, no one apologizes.
Rather, a certain burden of continued resentment and desire for revenge
becomes recognized as a fruitless clinging to a fantasy of personal
vindication, a childish, partly unconscious effort to restore a sense
of empowerment. This complex generates psycho-somatic as well as
psychic drains of energy and vitality, hardens the heart and mind.
Releasing grudges and resentments is sort of a surrender into the
realities of the present moment, an acceptance of what is that is a
cleansing of the psyche. A little more about this may be noted later.
This paper, as
noted, will focus on the first type, the interpersonal “dance” of
actual atonement (at-one-ment). The first point is that few people on
the forgiving or being forgiven side of the equation really know how to
play their parts. By clarifying these operations, it is hoped that the
activity of forgiveness can be exercised far more widely.
opposite, holding a grudge, is just such a drag. (This applies to both
kinds of forgiveness situations.) It feels burdensome, it draws you to
“the dark side.” Here’s how that works: Faced with a psychic wound, a
sense of betrayal, a snub, an associated complex of humiliation and
vulnerability gets triggered. Some folks are especially sensitive to
this, and these complexes are huge. Their rage or depression (depending
on temperament or context) tends to be correspondingly strong. But even
when it’s milder, the mental tendency is to magically counter the hurt.
This is achieved through a number of maneuvers:
1. Vengeance. Get back. Hurt them. Punish them. Show them who’s boss,
who’s really stronger, who can hurt the other even more. Prove you’re
tough, strong. Prove it again. And again! (Interesting how hitting back
once when hurt rarely satisfies.) This is a core human tendency, and
much of civilization rests on its modification. I think it was Freud
who said that when the first caveman hurled a word of abuse instead of
a rock, that was the beginning of civilization.
Shut down, withdraw. I don’t care, I am a rock, I am an island. I’ll
never speak to him again. I’ll act as if he doesn’t exist. This is a
very common response, seductive because it gives both a sense of
renewed power–“my walls are strong and high”–and also pushes the whole
relationship out of mind, represses the parts that want to care and be
Telling the judge, telling mommy. The judge will punish. I need an
audience, someone to notice that I’ve been hurt, to remind me that it
isn’t my fault, he shouldn’t have done that. Otherwise I feel guilty
for bringing it on myself, or ashamed that I was too weak and too
cowardly to really fight back hard enough. I need relief from that
shame and guilt, I need the jury to say, “You were right and he was
wrong.” I need someone to make it up to me!
Alas, you unconsciously take it out on others–people who remind you of
the offender, or sometimes anyone around. Kick the dog, yell at the
kids, feel so irritable that you blow up at the littlest annoyance.
Justify yourself: Well, she did annoy you, after all; you were just
reacting. Oh, but you were really over-reacting and hurting people who
care about you. Lots of this happens, too, sorry to say.
numerous permutations and mixtures of these responses, but they all are
inner dramas with little actual relationship to any external realities.
Most of the time you haven’t even been hurt or robbed of money; only
your pride, your sense of entitlement to your own thoughts about what
constitutes respect, love, thoughtfulness. And not infrequently, if you
were to examine this whole complex of injured pride and frustrated
expectation, in the light of your most mature present consciousness,
you’d recognize that you don’t need to hold on to these bad feelings.
there’s a gradient. Sometimes you’ve been hurt repeatedly, abused
viciously, raped or violated, robbed or had relatives killed–the list
of ways humans perpetrate wickedness on each other is lengthy. And
reconciliation or even releasing the anger is hard, but there’s a
certain point where the stress of replaying the aforementioned scenes
begins to take a toll on your body and your other present relationships
and activities. It drains energy from your soul and your social
network. So, forgiveness is an important cleansing, as if you
really have to go to the toilet from your soul every few months or
reason to practice forgiveness–especially regarding those in your
social network who might wish to reconcile with you--is that some of
the people who hurt you really love you or at least care about
you. Also, not infrequently, the separation between you may involve
some ways that you unintentionally hurt them, also, or intentionally,
in spite. Perhaps it began with just a little thoughtlessness. Perhaps
you or they weren’t thoughtless at all, but rather that what was
thought would be helpful was radically the wrong thing to say or do!
This kind of friction happens at least a few times a week in even the
most compatible of relationships! So it’s useful to build in ongoing
relational hygiene measures such as saying, “sorry, taking it over,”
learning the art of a casual apology, diagnosing what the friction was
about, re-stating the positive elements, and healing. Forgiveness is in
this small way as much a part of life as your body repairing the
millions of little moments of cell damage, microscopic infection, and
other types of breakdown happening in your body every day.
a matter of subjugating yourself, debasing yourself, “Oh, I’m the worst
worm in the world and deserve to be ground under your heel.” No, it’s
at-one-ment. Our relationship is repaired. Ideally, many hurts
are simply overlooked, or if they’re big enough to do a bit of a dance
of “Sorry” “Okay” about, well, folks just move on and don’t look back.
That’s the innocence of kids, and healthy adults do it all the time.
It’s harder when
the bump is bigger, though, and we’ll address some of the fancier steps
of the dance of reconciliation soon.
The Art of
level up involves the art of apology: For some who have played the role
of being tough or cool for too long, they’ve darn near lost this role.
It’s just a form of courtesy. (It can even be overdone, and in that
case, either amusing or annoying.) But for those who feel like their
teeth don’t want to let those words out of their mouth, consider this.
doesn’t mean that you are now so in the wrong that you’ve forfeited the
right to be treated with respect. Just because you made a mistake, this
doesn’t give others the right to impose any punishment, no matter how
horrible. These are part of the residues of childish thinking that have
been pushed out of awareness, and they are associated with either-or
kinds of reasoning. So really, you lose nothing with an apology–well,
except maybe for the illusion that if you don’t admit it, then everyone
will think that you’re innocent. Kids (and presidential candidates)
experiment with that variation, also.
relationships, learning how to recognize when you’ve bothered someone
and backing off, apologizing, is an act of basic relational hygiene.
Sometimes the “sorry” has more to do with an expression of
compassion–sorry that you’re not feeling well, or bothered–and less to
do with any admission of guilt, because in fact the other person isn’t
even beginning to think you did anything wrong. Sometimes it’s an
admission of just the mildest of having been not empathically attuned.
There’s a certain balance here. The key is to not try to avoid such
acknowledgments that relationships jostle at times.
This skill then
warms you up for more complex interactions that have to do with
de-escalation of friction, conflict-resolution, and forgiveness. The
first step, learn to open to doing it without having to get all
defensive about it. Not easy for a lot of folks, but it’s no harder
than learning to throw and catch a ball.
step is to talk about it without just slipping into blaming and
accusation, or for some folks who too readily placate, self-accusation.
Again, it’s a skill, one of countering all those neurotic tendencies to
attack or retreat, and to instead just address the situation. Do we
have some friction here?
Often the answer
is no, or “I’m not aware of any.” Then you can check out what that
nonverbal communication is about that seemed to indicate a breaking
away in the relationship. Often it’s just a need to do something else,
a distraction, and it’s not a comment on the relationship at all!
Don’t be too inclined to take too much personally.
If the answer is
yes, though, it takes maturity and courage to inquire what just
happened. Sometimes you know, and if you do, admit it and apologize and
ask to take it over, fix it, negotiate how it can be fixed. If you
don’t know, try to find out. It seems simple enough, but many friends
and family members get derailed at this point into blaming and
defending, or worse, blaming and counter-blaming.
If the friction
or break is big, and there’s already been a fight, or a drawing away,
then we’re closer to the ritual of forgiveness.
these ideas as tools in your toolbox of life. Many situations won’t
need or be helped by one or several of these “tools” or techniques.
Pick and choose what seems to apply.
situations it helps to ask a mutual friend or respected acquaintance
not to judge, but to facilitate reconciliation. There are some
psychotherapists, coaches, mediators, who can play this role. You want
to pick someone whose job it is not just to be your advocate, but who
cares for both of you. Paradoxically, you need to be open to the breach
in the relationship remaining, the attempt to heal will fail. You can’t
demand that what they do will magically fix it. (If you aren’t
satisfied with what the mediator or family therapist did, sure, get
another consultation, the equivalent of a “second opinion.”)
really need a trained mediator or therapist to orchestrate these
processes. I envision family reconciliators, a role in which no one is
placed in the role as the sick or neurotic one, but everyone meets as
equals. It is the relationship that is addressed as problematic, and
the exploration pursues atonement.
paper is no guarantee of a method that will work. It is a map for a
method, and it’s helpful to even be aware that such methods exist! Most
folks have no idea whatsoever how to proceed when there’s been a
breakdown in relationship, in trust, in hurt and resentment. So the
first point is that it can happen. But sometimes it can’t, when:
You don’t even like that other person. There’s no perceived payoff for
having this relationship. This can happen between two very nice and
worthwhile people, but they’re worthwhile only to those who appreciate
certain skills, interests, aspects that relate to their common
interests. These roles may have no interest whatsoever to you.
A review of what
roles you have in common can be helpful. Often there is an alienation
on a few key roles, but there may be a number of other roles that are
quite compatible, and even more the two of you can enjoy and be helpful
in certain ways. Or perhaps not. Still, it may be worth checking this
out, listing the good times or positive potentials.
Do you have
other people who need you to be close, or at least in a congenial
relationship? If it’s you and your ex-spouse who are at odds, are there
some kids whose life you could improve be being able to cooperate
more? Or parents, or siblings? This opportunity for
reconciliation sometimes comes up as a key family member may be dying
or facing a life-threatening crisis.
2. There are major incompatibilities. Certain endeavors will continue
to put you at odds. You find yourself politically or religiously
conflicted. If you have no other role in common, no other reason to get
together, it may be fruitful to try to reconcile. It may be enough to
reach a way of being around each other that’s polite, distant, and
avoiding all discussion about the point of friction.
3. There’s a distinct sense of alienation. Their life style, their very
way of being is annoying or bothersome. And there’s no great need for
you to re-establish your relationship, if you ever had one, even
peripherally. The corollary here is that when the rapport quality is
negative, even when you try to be friendly, it gets taken wrong. Oddly,
there are often no specific events or issues to work out–just a sense
of not liking the other.
for working out a big problem, a significant break, and there’s a good
reason to attempt to reconcile. Whether you’re the intended forgiver or
forgivee–sorry, sometimes it just works better to make up a word,
“forgivee” for the one who seeks to be forgiven–, it’s good to know
about this process. The process is complex and requires a number of
different elements, each of which needs to be thought out and/or
First, is there
a prospect of at least the possibility of a continuing
relationship? If the other person has moved far away and there is
little likelihood of further actual contact, that makes it harder. If
the person, on the other hand, is part of the family and will continue
to have relationships with others in the family, that increases the
sense of need for reconciliation, if it is possible. Friendships are an
needs to be at least some ambivalence, some degree of both parties
wishing to make up. Often there are layers of pride, and these serve
several functions. I don’t want certain other people to see me “give
in.” (This part is aimed at third parties as audience, another family
member, etc.) Another function is the problem with coping with
guilt–an issue that is very confusing for many people.
Guilt can seem
like an all-or-nothing kind of thing, and if you admit it, you feel
totally bad. What’s needed is a recognition that there are grades of
guilt, and that it’s manageable, and that people can handle a fair
degree and still maintain their goodness and dignity, especially as
they reach in the present towards positive values. That’s what
atonement (at-one-ment) is about, healing and love.
So part of the
process involves adjusting these infrastructure elements. Both parties
need to believe that atonement is possible. Part of this involves
knowing the rules of the game, so to speak, knowing the underlying
psychology as described a little further on, and the procedures that
are needed. When both partners know how to do this, they have tools,
and feel less awkward and vulnerable in taking on the challenge.
both people to engage–it “takes two to tango,” as an old song
proclaimed. The first kind of forgivness, releasing someone with whom
one will have no further actual dealings, can be done by one. More
about this later. But for two to reconcile, both have their own steps
to take. Indeed, it’s psychologically impossible for the forgiver to
really do it alone–we need some reciprocal activity from the
“forgivee.” (Sorry, sometimes we need to just make up a word.)
of forgiveness involves an opening of the heart that comes only with a
relaxation of fear, a natural orientation to higher values, and time
for certain processes to occur. It cannot be simply willed, like
picking up a cup of coffee. It is possible to generally intend to seek
forgiveness and healing, but one can’t “make” it happen--the process
itself is subtle.
psychological processes such as loving, imagining, creativity,
spontaneity, or forgiveness require a mixture of intuition and
thinking, imagination and will–or in neurophysiological terms–and these
are inexact–an integration or balancing of the so-called “right brain”
and “left brain” functions. This integrative process operates seemingly
by itself–not able to be willed directly. (It’s more like passive
volition, that skill that comes with sex, certain bodily functions,
etc.–you open to it, but if you try hard, it actually and paradoxically
inhibits the function.) The “adaptive unconscious” or “subconscious
mind” follows different rules for its activation.
the added dimension of requiring a measure of interpersonal
reciprocity–it takes both people to dance this dance. It’s not simply
an intra-psychic or individual process, which means that it can’t be
forced by, say, hypnosis.
situations in which both parties are willing to move towards
reconciliation, a number of steps are in order:
A desire for a relationship is affirmed.
An awareness of a break is acknowledged.
The reasons for the break are acknowledged without adding blame.
(A certain amount of blame is must be acknowledged by at least one
party, and sometimes both parties can accept a measure of blame.)
The forgivee opens mind and heart to the experience of the forgiver.
The forgivee understands the behavior that caused the hurt and resolves
to change, and is able to communicate that resolve to the forgiver.
Most of the forgiveness emerges naturally at this point, but a bit more
discussion may consolidate the gains. So, to explain this series a bit
1. Affirming the
desire for a relationship in the future. There can be a number of
components brought to bear at this point, such as mentioning explicit
images, memories of past events that were pleasant, good parts of the
relationship. Another element involves the awareness that the each
person is available and would be an addition to the social network of
It could be as simple as “I’m sorry about our having become estranged
and I’d like to patch up our relationship.” or “I still care about you
and would like to make up.”
Ideally, it is
initiated by the forgivee, but sometimes it might work if the forgiver
starts it. The problem is often that the forgivee really has no idea
how to proceed in this most awkward of processes–which is why I could
imagine both parties reading this article as a warm-up. For the
forgiver to start it is an act of special reaching-out and should be
appreciated as such.
of acknowledgment for any positive movement is the lubrication for the
whole process. A for effort is the key. Thank you for even being open
to the idea. I appreciate your willingness to consider this, I know it
brings up painful memories. I also appreciate that we had a
relationship and could have a positive relationship that makes this
awkwardness worth the process of re-establishing it.
As the process
unfolds, expressions of appreciation, saying thank you, can flow back
and forth from both sides–it’s a form of encouragement or positive
reinforcement as both parties grope towards understanding. It’s also a
opportunity to test in small ways the good will of the others, as if a
part is subconsciously saying, “I’m not too good at this, but I’m
trying. Please give me credit for doing this much.”
the break. “We haven’t talked for a long time.” Sometimes the forgivee
knows enough, having heard from third parties, a relative, a mutual
friend, to recognize the nature of the event that precipitated the
break. Sometimes this isn’t known. In this latter case, it still begins
with an opening: “I gather that I may have hurt or offended you, and
I’d like to try to repair it.”
the most poignant hurts happens when one opens up his heart to another
and is rebuffed. This resonates to a very core part of our psychology,
that dynamic that seeks to obtain and maintain relationships. (For a
while, around the 1960s, a great part of psychoanalysis moved away from
Freud’s theory that the mind is driven by sexual hunger and shifted
towards this alternative formulation, that we are mainly driven by our
desire for positive relationships. Now we include that plus some other
key motivational sources.) Shifting our perspective to a
philosophical or spiritual viewpoint, the willingness to risk the deep
sense of humiliation (even if no one else knows about it) is an act of
What is needed
is a firm guidance from the self in alliance with the “higher self” or
one’s higher values, to reassure the inner child that the experience of
hurt is illusory, symbolic, and really doesn’t mean that if rebuffed
that one is less for the encounter. Indeed, one needs to become one’s
own good parent or good older sibling, affirming and reassuring that
reaching out to open relationships is a noble and courageous act,
whether or not this effort succeeds. This grounding needs to be in
place before true interpersonal healing can happen.
Acknowledgment of the specifics of the event: This is tricky, because
there is a tendency to slip into not just blame–for to some degree,
blame is inherent in this analytic process–but excessive blame, rubbing
one’s nose in it, magnifying it. This is an error, and it may help to
notice and withhold this tendency if the motivation for doing it is
recognized. One reason is the fantasy that if the other person could
just know how much pain was caused, and how foolish it was, the
enormity of the sin would increase the motivation to rectify or make up
for it. The problem is that if this is excessively magnified, the other
person will just back off–the wall is too high and too full of barbed
wire. The other reason is simply vengeance–the illusion that the
forgiver can compensate for the feelings of humiliation when hurt in
the past by sadistically getting back at the one who was perceived as
the perpetrator. Again, an over-reaction will work counter-productively.
Lest it seem
impossible, consider that it’s quite plausible to imagine a reporting
of the event and the hurt without magnifying it. Even this will be
threatening to the forgivee, but it’s incumbent on this person to
tolerate a modest amount of complaint. This is in fact the major
sacrifice that is part of the atonement process.
difficult, shaming, guilt-producing, uncomfortable, to hear from
another person how you’ve messed up and hurt them. It happens to be the
truth, and within a broader context of self-esteem and trust in a
loving context–such as the aforementioned relationship with one’s
“higher self”–it is in fact tolerable. We must continuously
differentiate between the impossible and the merely very difficult. To
obtain forgiveness, the forgivee has to hear how what she or he did to
the (hoped-for) forgiver actually hurt the other person. There needs to
be some agreement as to the facts.
If You are
good deal of work in learning the role of forgivee. Most people don’t
know how to listen and imagine what it was like to be in the shoes of
the other person, to be empathic, in other words. That’s a skill that
needs cultivation as much as, say, riding a bicycle, or perhaps more
complex–learning to drive a car safely. It’s even harder to do when one
is feeling vulnerable for possibly making a mistake, and prone to going
on the defensive.
defensiveness interferes with the forgiveness process and should be
identified and suppressed. There are several types of defensiveness
that are so common as to be worthy of note: (1) deny that you did it,
or make some excuse for it, which has the function of denying that the
other person has any right to feel put off, indignant, hurt, offended,
etc. (2) apologize superficially and not want to talk about it further.
point, the timing may fall off: Now is not the time to make excuses,
because however valid they are, at this point in the process, they are
counter-productive. It’s a distraction and a disqualification of the
one who was hurt, as if the forgiver-to-be had no right to be hurt,
feel betrayed, etc. Actually, a measure of this kind of excuse making
can be done, but later– sometimes quite a bit later. This is
crucial. The forgiver is being reminded of his hurt and the old wounds
are opened a bit. (Both parties are daring to be more authentic,
opening the wound: The forgivee opens the vulnerability to shame and
guilt; the forgiver, to the vulnerability of having cared, trusted
(feeling like a fool when disappointed), and hurt.
4. The person
seeking forgiveness, the forgivee, opens his heart and mind to what was
experienced by the forgiver. This is even more crucial, indeed, the
heart of the process. When a person opens his heart to you, it’s very
difficult to not open your heart in return. What do we mean by opening
one’s heart? Well, it’s a mixture of empathizing and doing it with
The Art of
the key skill in obtaining forgiveness, and we need to teach it in the
schools, have it become a part of life as much as using deodorant or
not blowing smoke in another person’s face. It goes beyond courtesy and
moves towards authenticity in interpersonal encounters.
First of all, it
isn’t something that can just be done, willed, like the aforementioned
picking up a cup of coffee. Empathy, like forgiveness, is one of those
subtle skills that you warm up to. It involves thinking like an actor
taking on a part, an opening of the intuition and part of one’s
emotions to imagining what it might have been like to be in the other
person’s predicament as the hurtful events were playing out. It, too,
takes courage, and also the rare virtue of relinquishing one’s vanity
and self-centeredness for a while. It doesn’t matter who was wrong, who
deserves blame, who should feel shame or guilt; for a time, all that
matters is what the forgiver might have felt, her feelings!
Now if you think
about it, it’s really rather rare, sadly, that one person does this for
another, opens his mind and heart to really imagine what the other’s
situation and feelings were or are. Yet this is what I’m claiming is
the key healing act, and when someone does it for you, it feels like,
well, kind of loving. And it is. So that it becomes difficult to
withhold forgiveness to someone if the forgiver really experiences the
forgivee as truly empathizing, and caring and being sorry that the hurt
5. Well, still
there is another obstacle. Just saying, “I’m sorry,” no matter how
sincere, no matter how much empathy is expressed, still doesn’t
suffice. It must be paired with a following act of self-analysis. Now
I’m not talking about self-abasement. Saying, “Oh, I’m a wretch of a
bad person, a worm beneath your shoe!” won’t cut it. Again, this is an
illusion–working from the other end–that if I can beat myself up, I
won’t have to do what is really harder, which is to take stock of why
in the world I did that whatever-it-was-that-hurt and what I need to do
so I don’t do it again.
In the Twelve
Step Method of Alcoholics Anonymous, this is the step in which one
takes a “fearless moral inventory.” Really, it’s a kind of
self-analysis, or type of psychotherapeutic process. It breaks through
the illusion that we are adults who know what we’re doing, and reveals
the truth–that we are in many ways still childish or adolescent, we
give into temptations and lack self-discipline at a very immature
level, and further, we often don’t know how to do anything else.
On the positive
side, we can also again own the relationship with higher self and
recognize that we can learn, that this isn’t just a problem for the
forgivee, or for people who are “bad,” but everyone has certain
limitations, issues, unresolved complexes, and so forth, and this
condition continues throughout life, even in the wisest and best of us.
(Well, perhaps these issues and faults are less egregious, but they’re
still there.) So again, the challenge is to learn how to accept a
measure of guilt without feeling overloaded or burned by humiliation.
It can be done with practice, and truly mature people must learn this
Part of the
problem is that often one cannot readily do this kind of self-analysis
and remediation. It might require some contemplation, talk with a
friend, even some short-term psychotherapy. Still, it would be
reassuring to the forgiver to hear something like, “I acknowledge that
I get careless that way. I am resolved to find out why and take steps
to reverse that tendency. I will redouble my efforts not to make that
mistake with you again.”
It’s still not
the time to make excuses! The forgiver will be alert, subconsciously
sensitive, perhaps even hypersensitive, to any effort you make to
diminish your concern for her feelings and to disqualify the
seriousness of the hurting process. Excuse-making is correctly
perceived as an ego-centric rather than empathic maneuver, reflecting
an immature mind-set. What gets communicated is that the forgivee
want’s to be forgiven without having to really change anything, and
that’s a bum deal.
Most of the
the time, folks don’t have the words. When they do have some words,
they’re the wrong words. Too much blame, too much defensiveness.
Counter-blame, excuse-making, distractions. Forgiveness gets lost and
in its place is self-justification, letting oneself “off the hook,” or
a phony process of pseudo-forgiveness. Okay, I’ll give you another
chance–but the forgiver really feels manipulated into it, pushed by
expectations from other family members (“Now you two make up.”), or
wanting to trust–but really, not being able to. Sometimes
pseudo-forgiveness happens because it’s the best that one can get in
wanting to re-establish a relationship, but alas, neither party has
been able to change anything deep down. Whatever caused the break
before is still operating.
business, then law began to use mediators. In a way, mediators are kind
of like marriage therapists. Sometimes it’s too late, and the mediation
just arranges for a more civil mode of separation. Occasionally,
therapy, counseling, and mediation actually effect a reconciliation. It
depends on how early in the process of relationship-injury it all
I’d like to see
more people–not just couples, but other family members–do some
relationship healing short-term-therapy. Possibly a several session
series over a weekend. It doesn’t have to mean that anyone is neurotic,
sick, or bad. Relationships get strained, broken, and the people feel
bad. Sometimes they know or feel that it didn’t really have to be that
way, it was tragic.
As one who has
played the role of the mediator or marriage counselor, I think that it
is tragic, especially when the two people aren’t clear about what the
issues are or their motivation to continue. At least get those clear,
so that a more conscious decision can be made.
are breaking up all the time, not just marriages. A parent becomes
estranged from a child, a brother from a brother, an uncle from a
nephew and his family, a grandparent from a grandchild. Sometimes
neither party wants anything more to do with the other, but sometimes
they feel sad–and it turns out, both parties feel sad.
break-up is about behaviors that feel unforgivable, or may be judged so
by other friends or relatives. “After the way she treated you? Are you
kidding?” “I could never forgive a man who did that!” In spite of these
opinions from third parties, what is surprising is how often people
will seek to make up even then!
Then there are
those hurts and resentments that burn, but the relationship is over.
This involves the first type of forgiveness noted at the beginning of
this paper. The other person lives in another country; is unknown or
would require incredible efforts to find his identity; there are too
many of them; they might be dead; there was no relationship to speak of
to begin with; and so forth. Reconciliation is beside the point. This
is that first category of forgiveness mentioned at the outset, and this
process is more intra-psychic–that is, between the different parts of
one’s own mind.
Part wants to
let go, move on; part holds on, secretly hoping that some kind of
corrective process can happen. Perhaps it’s telling the story and
having the audience justify one’s victimization and turn against the
perpetrator. Perhaps it’s sheer vengeance, the fantasy of sometime,
somewhere, somehow getting back, if not at the person, at his name, his
reputation, his family, his affiliated group. These are powerful
seductions and many people dwell with this dark but curiously
comforting complex of fantasies. Of course, though, they wouldn’t even
bother reading this far.
For those who
carry hurts and resentments and are ready to move on, here, too, there
are a number of steps of personal maturation that are needed. I
believe, first, in getting grounded in the positive. Some discussion
with friends, journaling, prayer, contemplation, whatever is needed
should be done to affirm that life would be even better, fuller, more
free, having released the complex that wants to seduce the mind into
what Freud called a “repetition compulsion.”
compulsion is that deep, usually partly or wholly unconscious, childish
group of fantasies that symbolically rectify a hurt, humiliation, or
trauma. They make it different, as if it didn’t happen, or it’s fixed,
magically, by a variety of maneuvers: Telling it to a judge, or God as
judge, who punishes the perpetrator. Wreaking revenge. Becoming so
tough and/or powerful that no one can ever hurt you again. Withdrawing
(or, as Simon & Garfunkle sang in the early 1970s, “I am a
rock, I am an Island.”).
When you don’t
have other options, these are comforting. The other options are harder:
Having something really meaningful and life-affirming to do. Clearly
getting a view of oneself as being good enough to contain some episodes
of guilt, loss, shame, humiliation, hurt, powerlessness, and the like,
and still know oneself to be valuable and effective. Developing a
relationship with God, friends, “higher self”–that supports and
comforts, and reminds one of sufficient value so that the “dark side”
loses its power of temptation. Still, these other, more mature options
are more real and longer lasting, far more adaptive and leading to a
greater capacity for love and constructive action in the world.
The second step
in releasing is to do something more like psychotherapy, owning the
hurt inner child, granting oneself the sympathy it deserves. Many
people have coped by tightening up and denying that one was
vulnerable–but that only buries the hurt part, doesn’t heal it. Healing
requires owning it, and symbolically affirming that one’s tender
feelings will be cared for. (On reflection, there’s even a process of
obtaining forgiveness from one’s own hurt inner child!)
The third step
is getting the whole episode into perspective. Sometimes this involves
extending oneself to seek to understand why that other person did what
he did, exercising the empathy in a different direction.
Another kind of
releasing involves working out the mixed feelings that are part of a
significant lost other. Perhaps it is a parent who has died. This
process is complex because it has to do with identifying and re-working
the inner messages that are retained. These inner messages are clung to
partially out of habit and familiarity, partly because they’re
associated with other unconscious fantasies of being effective or
coping or achieving certain other seemingly desirable ends, and partly
to hold on in one’s mind to the best elements of the lost other
person. So much of conventional therapy works towards the
untangling of these knots.
Forgiveness from Another, without Reconciliation
reminded me of this variation: You know a person with whom you won’t be
reconciling –they’re no longer interested, gone geographically,
whatever. Still, for your own peace of mind, you’d kinda like to feel
forgiven. Here’s a great place for psychodrama! Find a
practitioner who can give you a session: Set up a scene. Ideal if you
can bring along some friends who can move into different roles, or
perhaps the practitioner can provide some others. Or maybe just you,
the practitioner as facilitator, and an empty chair.
Use the role
taking techniques to play the other person and say the words you want
the other person to hear. Start by you apologizing, hearing yourself
enumerate the various ways you know you were thoughtless, hurtful, or
in other ways deserving of resentment–and desirous of forgiveness.
Allow the issues to go back and forth. Here you can give all the
excuses you want, but then you need to look at all those, too.
can clear your mind, clear the air, and be part of a greater process I
envision as someday being the norm for all people–that of ongoingly
cleaning up one’s act. In spiritual terms, this is (in Sanskrit) called
“sadhana,” a spiritual path, and I see life, learning how to mature at
all levels and digest and integrate the vicissitudes of fate as part of
life’s lessons, all as the way to move towards wisdom and spiritual
paper has reviewed the phenomenon of forgiveness. At this time, it is a
work in progress and I’d be interested in further input. What do you
like, what do you think should change? If I integrate a significant
suggestion, I’ll put your name to it. Suggested references also welcome.
References at http://www.forgivenessweb.com/RdgRm/Bibliography.html
I am eager to
receive your comments, suggestions, suggested references, books,
articles that you've found particularly helpful. Email me